What’s Happening With Student Assignment

What’s Happening With Student Assignment

August 31, 2020: Blog post #1

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Family and teacher standing with smiling child

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is currently revisiting our policy for how elementary school students are assigned to public schools. In December 2018, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution that began this process. In it, the Board listed a number of concerns with the current system, including that it has not reversed the trend of racial isolation, is complicated for families to navigate, and isn’t predictable or transparent enough.

As this past summer’s Black Lives Matter protest movement has laid bare our nation’s deep and persistent racial inequities, the Board resolution calling on staff to redesign how students are assigned to elementary schools provides us with an opportunity to work together to make real systemic changes that will have tangible impacts for San Francisco students and families.

In SFUSD, our mission is to provide each and every student the quality instruction and equitable support required to thrive in the 21st century, and our core values guide us as we persist through challenges. SFUSD’s commitment to social justice — standing with those most vulnerable in our community — is central in our work to develop a new student assignment policy.

We invite you to be partners in this exciting and important work. What we achieve together will affect tens of thousands of San Francisco students, families, and, ultimately, our entire community.

Read on to get up to speed on where we are in the redesign process, so you can be part of the change.

The Backstory

Our current student assignment policy, which the Board of Education adopted in 2010, was designed to use a full choice system — in which families could apply to any elementary school in the District — to overcome residential segregation and reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school; provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students; and provide transparency at every stage of the process. (For more information on current and past plans, stay tuned for next week’s posts on the history of student assignment in SFUSD).

Despite our best efforts, though, the plan has not worked as intended. Here are the top reasons why we’re redesigning the elementary school student assignment system.

Why We're Redesigning Student Assignment

School Segregation

In 2010, SFUSD adopted its current student assignment policy which sought to use district-wide choice as a strategy to overcome residential segregation.

Unfortunately, current choice patterns exacerbate, rather than alleviate residential segregation. A 2016 analysis by SFUSD staff found that elementary schools are more segregated by race/ethnicity, and academic performance level than they would be under a hypothetical neighborhood schools system.

Socioeconomic segregation also remains an alarming concern. Districtwide, 52% of SFUSD elementary school students qualify for free or reduced price meals, but there are dramatic differences in the percent of students who qualified across schools. 70% of elementary schools were more than 15% above or below the K-5 average for free or reduced meal eligibility in 2019–20.

African American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students are especially likely to be enrolled in higher poverty schools while white students are dramatically more likely to be enrolled in lower poverty schools. Research has shown that racial segregation appears to be harmful, in large part, because it concentrates minority students in higher poverty schools and that higher poverty schools tend to be less effective than lower poverty schools.

Meaningful Ability to Choose is Inequitably Distributed

The current plan also theorized that all families would access the choice offerings equally, which would have resulted in greater equity and diversity. Unfortunately, the reality is that not all families have the same resources to select a school for their child. The current plan’s tiebreakers, which give priority to students living in the areas of the city with the lowest average test scores, only work to increase equity and diversity if families are able to navigate the choice process and submit an on-time application. Our enrollment data shows that this is not always the case, with white and Asian families much more likely to submit an on-time application than African American and Latinx families.

Our Current Process Causes Stress and Anxiety for Families

Community feedback tells us that the current system causes great stress and anxiety for many families, in part because of the complexity of the system, the large number of options available to choose from (72 different elementary and K-8 schools!), the lengthy application and enrollment processes, and the uncertainty of where their child will ultimately be assigned. In short, families want a less stressful and more predictable student assignment system.

Lack of Community Connections

Because students living in the same neighborhood are not at all assured of attending the same school in our current plan, the important social connections formed in school do not always translate to our neighborhoods. Our students and families desire and deserve strong connections with their fellow community members and neighbors.

Undermined Confidence in School Quality

The current plan gives priority to students from areas of the city with the lowest average test scores with the intention of providing equitable access to high quality schools. This well-intentioned plan has inadvertently stigmatized the many wonderful schools in the priority areas, and may accidentally deter families from requesting excellent but lesser-known schools in these areas. Furthermore, public data showing how many requests each school receives further reinforces the idea that there are only a few desirable elementary schools in the city. (The truth is that we have outstanding schools all over the city.)

Choice Has Led to Under Enrollment in Some Schools

Research has shown that implicit bias plays a role in families’ evaluations of school quality and safety. Since these two factors are consistently rated among the most important considerations for families, this means that school choice may systematically reward or punish schools based on their demographics, rather than their effectiveness. In SFUSD, we’ve seen that schools with more low-income students are less likely to be enrolled to capacity, even though they’re often located in the most densely populated areas of the city.

Since school budgets are tied to enrollment, the current plan has also accidentally created unproductive competition between schools. Under enrolled schools have to use time and resources to “sell” themselves to prospective families instead of being able to focus fully on the task of providing a rich and rewarding education to the students they serve.

Currently, our elementary schools range in size from about 100 to nearly 700 students, which places a burden on both crowded and under enrolled schools.

Where We Are in the Process Now

In December 2018, the Board acknowledged the above issues and passed a resolution calling on SFUSD to design a new elementary student assignment plan with three main goals:

  • Diversity: Create integrated elementary schools that provide students with the opportunity to experience the rich diversity of our city.
  • Predictability: Offer families of elementary students a high degree of predictability about where their elementary children will be enrolled in school.
  • Proximity: Create strong community connections to local schools and reduce the number of families with elementary students traveling across the city.

Throughout the 2019–20 school year SFUSD hosted a series of public meetings with the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment and in spring 2020 SFUSD staff gathered community feedback on the Board’s policy goals and three potential concepts for a new elementary school assignment system.

In fall 2020, SFUSD will again host public meetings with the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment to discuss a policy recommendation, and the full Board of Education plan to vote on a new elementary school student assignment policy on December 8, 2020. We invite you to join us in addressing the inequities in our current system, and help make our new plan the right one for all of San Francisco’s students by sharing your input at these public meetings. If a new policy is adopted in December 2020, it would likely go into effect for students enrolling in kindergarten for the fall of 2023.

Learn more and join the conversation by visiting www.sfusd.edu/studentassignment.

This is the first of five posts in SFUSD’s Student Assignment Blog.

The Student Assignment Blog is written and edited by Reed Levitt (SFUSD Communications Intern & Master of Public Policy Candidate, Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) and Henry O’Connell (Student Assignment Project Manager, SFUSD).